Friday, February 27, 2009


Last night I criticized a post in which Ann Althouse made the ridiculous assertion that it's racist to compare Bobby Jindal to a white TV character. But I have to acknowledge that, like Althouse, I rolled my eyes at a passage from this New Republic article about Barack Obama by Michelle Cottle:

Biracial heritage aside, Obama is a black man. And, in this country, black men have long had the edge on cool.... [A]s a thought exercise, imagine Obama as a white politician. Wonky, overeducated, idealistic, unflappable, reform-minded, big into basketball, articulate but without the lyrical echoes of the African American pulpit -- far from being brother cool, Obama would be ex-senator turned failed presidential candidate Bill Bradley.

Er ... no.

I once saw Bill Bradley trying to work a crowd here on the Upper West Side. He seemed bone-tired, hobbled, and old (he was only in his fifties). His height didn't confer stature -- he slumped; I'd compare him to the "Middle-Aged Man" character Mike Meyers played a few times on Saturday Night Live. Forget Obama -- by contrast, Chuck Schumer, whom I saw around the same time also pressing flesh, was a bundle of energy, a pumped-up happy warrior who connected with the crowd.

Cottle's point is that Obama's a nerd, but he's also exceedingly cool, primarily because being black compels one to become cool. But Eric Holder isn't cool. Alan Keyes isn't cool. Deval Patrick doesn't seem to be particularly cool. And that's fine. Michael Steele keeps desperately trying to be cool, and he just isn't. And he should stop, because he shouldn't be required to be cool (even though that's one reason why -- or at least he seems to think that's one reason why -- he got the gig).

Yes, Obama draws on black style -- but that's hardly the sole source of his charisma. Obama just has "it" -- as Kennedy did, and as (though Cottle disagrees) Bill Clinton did. Obama has a thousand-watt smile. Bill Bradley has, er, a one-watt smile at best.

One of these things is not like the other.

No one really knows what charisma is, but it has something to do, I think, with a combination of ease and pleasure in one's own competence. I think I've mentioned this before, but I once got to see Bill Clinton in a crowd answering questions -- the one I heard at length was about, of all things, tax policy for accounting firms -- and he was in the zone, weighing the question from several angles and rattling off perfectly formed off-the-cuff sentences, without breaking a sweat. The crowd hung on every word. He clearly loved thinking and reasoning and persuading, knew he was good at it, and the crowd ate it up. You have this or you don't have it.

This is one reason I was exasperated back in '07 when David Ehrenstein wrote his "Magic Negro" op-ed about Barack Obama. Voters regularly look for a sense that a candidate has a magic touch -- and Obama's hardly the first politician they thought had that touch. (Hell, I'm willing to grant that George W. Bush had a bit of it -- he needed a solid speech and a huge, 100% worshipful crowd, but when all the minimum requirements were met, as they were throughout the '04 campaign, he connected in a way his base found charismatic. And Sarah Palin crowds sure don't turn out for the deep thought.) It's charisma. Whatever "it" is, high melanin levels aren't a prerequisite.

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